How To Stay on Budget (Without Really Trying)


"Stay on a budget without even trying? Yeah, right,” said SpouseBuzz reader Tara Reeder.

Tara isn’t kidding. It’s one thing to have a budget app on your phone reminding you how you really can’t afford to go out to dinner again. It is another thing to actually resist going out to dinner.

How do you stay on budget without lashing yourself to your own front porch?

Spouses who attended Military.com’s Spouse Experience event at Joint Base Lewis McChord and our USAA money gurus gave us their top 10 tips on what they do stay on budget. What would you add to their list?

1. Marry someone who doesn’t like to spend money.

JJ Montanaro, Certified Financial Planner with USAA, said that in his career he has noticed that there are two kinds of people in the world: savers and spenders. And that they marry each other.

That can be a problem. Or a fantastic advangate. Sara Hoff said the best money decision she ever made was to marry her husband (who hates spending money.)

2. Trick yourself early and often.

The part of the brain that controls spending must be so basic that it works on autopilot—like breathing. Me see sushi. Me want sushi. Me give credit card to pay $60 for sushi. Me no understand why no money to cover sushi bill?

The Budget Queens among our SpouseXers figure that part of the brain is D-U-M-B. So they set out to trick it early and often.

They used all-cash systems in which you put cash into envelopes for each different category and then stop spending when the cash is gone. Or they used a cash card system with an automatic spending limit. Or an app on their phone for autotracking that calls your mother if you overspend (surely they were making that one up?)

“Set an allotment to go straight to savings,” advised Kelly K. You can’t spend it if you can’t see it.”

3. Divide and conquer.

There is an old rule that says it is better to tell your dollars where they are going than to ask them where they went.  Dividing money into little pots helped our readers stay honest with themselves.

Scott Halliwell, a Certified Financial Planner with USAA, told one Spouse X crowd that he keeps seven (7!!) different savings accounts.  These accounts are for things like Christmas, his kids sports expenses, vacation, and charitable giving.

“For us, separating the money into different accounts does two things: It keeps us from using it on something else and it gives us piece of mind to know that the money will be there when we need it,” said Scott.

4. Temptress, know thyself.

Our spouses said that if you really want to stay on budget, you don’t go hang out in the places where you can’t help but buy.   If you really want to stay on budget, you don’t go shopping when you are feeling low.

So don’t fool yourself. Everyone knows where their own temptation lies. Many of our readers said that Target was kinda irresistible. Shop with a list and stick to it or don’t let yourself go in the store.

5. Do Dave Ramsey.

While this hardly qualifies as staying-on-budget-without-even-trying, I must admit that over and over our participants swore by Dave Ramsey’s debt reduction method by name.

They like his no-holds-barred approach and that the participation of both partners is required.

Rachael Mayo is a big Ramsey fan. “Budget every month with your spouse whether you are in debt or not,” said Rachel.

6. Understand the difference between wants and needs.

Senior spouses were more likely to bring up the idea of wants and needs, possibly from prior experience.

“If you and your service member can really look at something and see the difference between a need (milk for the kids) and a want (ice cream for dessert), then you can make it,” said one fortysomething spouse.

Understanding the difference between wants and needs is a huge concept. So is the idea of “enough.”

7. Eat at home during the week.

No matter what activities you have going on, make a rule that you always eat at home during the week. That’s a good tip. It makes the eat-out decision much less subject to whether or not you feel like cooking. Is it Wednesday? Then we are eating at home, people!

Our readers said that having a plan for these weeknight meals helps a lot. Katherine Adler swears by her crock pot. Jessica Strandberg leans on leftovers. Katie G says that a menu plan helps her family order fewer pizzas.

8. Cultivate your inner Scrooge.

Ol’ Scrooge gets a bad rap. Sure, he was a penny pinching old miser. But he liked it! He loved it! He thought up new ways to save all the time!!

Cultivate a little Scroogey joy in yourself by listing all the ways to save money. Going out to lunch instead of dinner. Don’t order $2 sodas at a restaurant, just order water. Cut your own grass. Learn to cut your soldiers hair. Grow plants from seeds. Research military discounts. Buy meat in larger packages that you can separate and freeze. Grow vegetables and herbs. Recycle school supplies. Whatever you do, love it like Ebeneezer and staying on budget will seem a lot easier.

9. Use your sweaters.

Scrooge himself kept Bob Cratchit on his toes by keeping heat consumption to a minimum. Heating and cooling costs really do add up.

Andrew F. said that it wasn’t a big deal to learn how your thermostat system works and have it automatically turn the heat down at night during the winter and turn the air conditioning up during the summer. Easier than clipping coupons.  This is why we love male spouses.

10. Base activities are cheap.

“Take advantage of base activities,” said Tevera. Lots of things are no cost or extra low cost.”

Like our Military.com Spouse Experience shows!! Our shows are free to the base (you just have to invite us) and free to our participants (you just have to sign up). We give prizes like gift cards and ipads and tshirts. Best of all, no one goes home without picking up one little SpouseBuzz tip to make their whole lives better.

Upcoming shows: August 1 San Diego and September 12 San Antonio.

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